MOST REVEREND MICHAEL NEARY
on the occasion of his retirement as
Archbishop of Tuam
An opportunity to reflect
Looking back over twenty-seven years as Archbishop, and almost thirty years as bishop, I am afforded an opportunity to reflect on the various situations in which I have been privileged to minister and, more importantly, I am afforded an opportunity to express my gratitude to all whom I have met along the way.
The beauty of creation
One of the first thoughts to come to mind is the magnificent beauty of the land and seascapes of the Archdiocese. Whether it was coping with the wild Atlantic on the way from Cloughmore in Achill to Confirmations on Clare Island and Inishturk, or, by contrast, savouring the sunset over Galway Bay as I returned from Confirmations in Inis Oírr or Inis Meáin or Cill Rónáin, or the rugged beauty of Inisbofin and its welcoming harbour and people. Every parish from Achill to Moore, and from Ballinlough to the Aran Islands has its own beauty and unique features. It is no wonder, then, that we find ourselves hosting tourists from all over the world who come to breathe in the beauty we sometimes take for granted in the west of Ireland.
And it is no wonder that those who went before us found God in the beauty of His creation, and so many places have become holy places by the feet of pilgrims going there to pray – Croagh Patrick, Ballintubber, Máméan, and holy wells and other sacred places important to particular parish communities.
One group of people which has stood out for me over all of my time as a bishop is teachers. I still marvel at the manner in which, year after year, the teachers so conscientiously prepare candidates for the sacraments of First Confession, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation. I never cease to be amazed at how they can communicate and teach the sometimes very complex realities of the faith in a way the child can easily comprehend. I see the way the parents of these children become interested and involved in what their child is doing and how the teacher serves as a bridge or a conduit for them. And all of a sudden, the school, the home and the parish are working together in a most uplifting and edifying way.
This is replicated right across the Archdiocese and it a wonderful tribute to our teachers and to those who provide support to our teachers in the areas of primary and post-primary catechesis. These are the people who walk the walk rather than talk the talk. These are the people who get on with the work and they are shining lights in our schools and our parishes. Surely what has now become known as the Synodal Pathway has its roots here, and it reached an important milestone in 2006 when the Diocesan Assembly heard the voices of parishioners from every parish of the Archdiocese, assessed what was working well, and plotted a way forward for the future. One very positive and enduring result was the formation and training of Pastoral Councils in a way that allowed the momentum at diocesan level to be felt and built upon at parish level.
From large congregations to small groups
One of the biggest changes, or shifts in emphasis, I have seen over the past three decades especially, is in the whole area of working with groups. In the past the priest was trained to minister to large groups, large congregations, but today priests and bishops must work with smaller groups, they must learn from these groups, they must trust them, delegate to them, and be happy to be guided by people who are trained, informed and committed. It is a model of church where all – the People of God – move forward together.
Now, as everybody knows, this takes time. The transition from the way priests were trained to the actual reality of pastoral ministry today has been very difficult for some and not half quick enough for others, and with a large group in the middle. Huge strides have been made. It is exciting, it is exhilarating, and it will be, in the end, very rewarding.
So, we see here in our own Archdiocese how so many worthwhile initiatives and activities take place in the context of the smaller group. Think of the Parish Pastoral Council; the Parish Finance Committee; the Diocesan Safeguarding Committee; Youth Ministry; Lectio Divina groups, those studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church in small groups, and so much more.
The result is, then, a greater involvement and participation by lay people in the life of the parish and the Church. This positive development is to be wholeheartedly welcomed.
One of the items to dominate in the life of the Church, not only in Ireland but across the world over the past almost thirty years, is the subject of Child Safeguarding. It is the topic which has consumed much of my time and energy as Archbishop. It was, then, with humble gratitude that I recently received and published the findings of the independent review of Child Safeguarding carried out by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSCCCI). The seven standards of safeguarding practice were reviewed, and each of the seven standards was deemed to have been met.
I see the Report as an acknowledgment and an affirmation of the years of joint and determined effort on the part of priests and parishioners alike. This has truly been a collaborative effort, and the result is that the Church is now a safer place for children.
Planning for the future is always a necessary and ongoing process. The pandemic made it impossible to meet in cluster groups, and the Diocesan Planning Group was also unable to continue to meet. However, prior to the pandemic, it was very encouraging to witness the number of people who became available for training as Parish Secretaries, as chairpersons of Pastoral Councils, and as members of Finance Committees, and this illustrates the huge interest on the part of people who want to become involved in church-related activities and have a deeper understanding and greater appetite for involvement. This was replicated more recently when churches began to reopen and a call for people to help in making the church buildings safe and clean for all received an overwhelming and immediate response. All of this is a sign of great life and buoyancy on the part of so many people in the affairs of the Church and it points to “a future full of hope”.
The Church in pandemic times
The response to the recent appeal for volunteers, for ushers and sanitisers, as the churches began to re-open after the lockdown was enormous and again hugely encouraging. The availability, the generosity and the service given by people is a sign of a church that is very much alive. Parishioners everywhere were very understanding and they provided great flexibility with regard to attendance at Masses, and then, of course, in the various churches we had people helping priests and cooperating with them and ensuring that Masses would be available on webcam and radio, and ensuring that people would be able to continue to be in touch with the Lord and with the celebration of the sacraments.
Despite the limitations imposed in the interests of protecting people from the coronavirus, the long-planned Cathedral refurbishment was finally completed. It was a huge undertaking, but with the dedication and professionalism of the contractor and the tradespeople, with the backing of parishioners and people across the Archdiocese, and under the watchful eye and careful supervision of the Cathedral Administrator and the Tuam Parish Finance Committee, the Tuam Parish Pastoral Council, and the Diocesan Finance Committee, the magnificent refurbishment is now visible for all to see. It was a privilege to welcome His Excellency Jude Thaddeus Okolo, Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, to Tuam on 15 August to be present as the new Cathedral altar was dedicated and consecrated.
While we, like the rest of the world, dealt with the challenges of Covid-19 and the emerging strains of the virus, something miraculous happened. Just as something miraculous happened in Knock in the midst of the darkness that enveloped Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the Great Hunger, so, in March 2021, Pope Francis announced that the Holy See was elevating Our Lady’s Shrine at Knock to the status of an International Eucharistic and Marian Shrine. I believe it was miraculous because throughout the process in having the Shrine’s status elevated, every door we came to opened effortlessly before us. For me, it was as if Our Lady was once more making her presence felt at a time when so many people were suffering, and she was inviting us to come to her and to invoke her intercession. Knock has always been a special place for the people of the Archdiocese of Tuam, now the Church has recognised its importance for the whole world.
As I think of Knock, I cannot but recall the historic visit of Pope Francis in 2018 as part of the World Meeting of Families celebrations. As people know, Knock was the only place outside Dublin the Holy Father visited. There were lots of very good reasons for him to go elsewhere, but he personally chose to come as a pilgrim to Knock and to pray there in silence before the Apparition tableau. It was a privilege to join with the Rector and Parish Priest of Knock in welcoming Pope Francis on that occasion. The significance of the Holy Father’s visit, I believe, will become apparent as time goes by, particularly in the areas of vocations and family life.
Priests and Deacons
The clergy in every diocese are the bishop’s closest confidantes and collaborators. Even at this stage, as I look to retirement, I am energised and challenged by the selflessness with which the priests in the Archdiocese of Tuam approach their ministry. They provide a wonderful service to their parishioners day in and day out; they accompany them in their difficult times, and they join with them when they celebrate.
Recently, we were blessed to be able to celebrate the first ordination of permanent deacons in this diocese. I am certain that the Lord is blessing the diocese with this diaconal ministry, and I look forward to seeing how this exciting development unfolds.
While the number of priests has been declining steadily in recent years, we have found ourselves in a position to welcome priests from India. These Indian priests have brought a great sense of mission to our diocese, and helped to open up our diocese to a new culture and new ways of spirituality and the expression of the spiritual. They have received a warm welcome from the clergy and in the parishes where they have been appointed, and we are indebted to them for the generous way in which they share their charisms.
Women in leadership roles
Not one of us who has served for more than a day in any parish in Ireland will be under any illusion as to the important role played by women in the Irish Church. To describe women as the backbone of every parish and every diocese wouldn’t even begin to describe the enormous and indispensable roles they play. I am proud of the way women have taken up leadership positions in our diocese and have significantly enriched the life of the church here. I am proud of the fact that the Archdiocese of Tuam was the first in these islands, to the best of my knowledge, to appoint a female Chancellor. She was appointed not because she was a woman, but because she was the most suitable person for the position. Our Diocesan Financial Administrator is a woman – again, the most suitable person and selected in an open competition. Our Youth Ministry person is a woman, the head of Safeguarding in the diocese is a woman, one of our Diocesan Liaison Persons is a woman, the chair of the Diocesan Pastoral Council is a woman, and, our first Data Protection Officer was a woman. None of them is the token female. Each one was appointed on merit.
Welcome and Thank you
As I said at the beginning, the date of my retirement is approaching. I warmly welcome my successor, Archbishop Francis Duffy, and pray that God will bless him as he takes up his new responsibilities among us. I will continue to be available to assist him in any way he chooses.
Finally, and most importantly, the reason for this message is simply to express a warm word of appreciation to the people of the Archdiocese of Tuam – the lay faithful of all ages, the religious, the deacons and the priests – for the way in which you have assisted and supported me in my ministry over fifty years as a priest, almost thirty as a bishop, and most especially over the past twenty-seven years when it was my privilege to serve as your Archbishop.